An artist's education

ON an island off the coast of Maine is a small community of lobstermen. Gray shingled houses and fish sheds perch above the granite shore. From the sheltered harbor and dock an unpaved road ascends sharply past the island inn to join other houses, a one-room schoolhouse, library, general store, and a church. Paths branch from the road to outlying houses of summer people. When we arrive, they are closed for the winter. The few other visitors who disembarked from the small ferry with us were quiet, solitary, dressed in subdued colors, layered against the damp chill of the 12-mile ocean crossing. They may have been birders. The island lies in the path of fall bird migration.

In the evening my wife and I attended the Sunday night hymn service. Inside the church was warm, lit by gas lamps along the side walls and a chandelier of four kerosene lamps hung from the high ceiling. We began with hymns chosen by the small congregation, hymns I recalled the words to but had not sung in many years. ``Let the lower lights be burning, send a beam across the waves, some poor fainting struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save.''

The congregation became an instrument of song. The church grew warmer. A sermon followed. It was brief, low key. ``We must take time for life and the beauty of the island.'' The itinerant minister, flushed with the passion of our song, must have questioned himself, ``Do words have a place after such singing?''

The service ended. An elderly woman held a flashlight to guide us down a few wooden steps into the blindness of the cool night. Forms disappeared silently into its blackness, others lingered to murmur in awe. We looked up. The sky was a dazzling wonder, overwhelming in its vastness. The Milky Way, a luminous, glowing trail arched from one distant horizon to the other, each constellation etched with the engraved clarity of a star chart. Splendor attends such experience.

Aesthetic moments make us wonder. Man's fascination with knowledge must have been inspired by such natural confrontations. Compelled to observe, we cannot ignore what presses all about us. Mariners from islands like this one observed the relation and change of heavenly bodies, marked their disappearance and return, named them. Feelings of awe inspired the practical knowledge we now call the science of celestial navigation. Though reduced to a science, its name still evokes a sense of unbounded wonder.

So pleasant is the aesthetic moment wedded to the dawn of learning that men have braved and withstood the tedious labor of observation and record. So we have named each insect, flower, bird, and the species of marine and animal life, the elements of matter and the vitalizing forms of energy. Learning has become a human passion.

Knowledge has become our most precious legacy. We enlarge upon it and transmit it through our children to the future. It is the building material of thought and allows us to plan and predict the consequences of action. Knowledge increasingly influences what we think, how we act, and the shape our lives take.

Through education we learn what is known and how to use it. A quick memory, logical systematic disposition, discipline, and perseverance are required. The efficiency of education lies in its use of symbols. Words and numbers represent objects and quantities; they take the place of experience. Without these symbols we could not record and build upon knowledge. They enable us to think and plan without moving large and heavy objects about. One would be hard put to build a suspension bridge or a jet aircraft without them.

Confidence in the use of symbolic representation eludes many of us. As a student I was intimidated by education and by the comparative ease with which others seemed to learn. I envied them. Everything was fresh and interesting and I was eager to learn and create, yet education was more humiliation than joy. My memory was slow and logical association almost nonexistent. The only subjects I excelled in were art and shop (industrial arts). Good marks in these were feathers to sway the heavy balance of failing grades in the really important subjects that dealt with words and numbers; math, history, English.

I enjoyed art - frivolity amid the serious discipline of learning. Though at the time I felt solitary, now I know that I was not alone in my struggle with public education. Many others have trouble learning through symbols and the implant of logic and fact in memory. Learning comes more naturally to them through doing. We do - we don't study how to do, or about doing.

One paints a painting, plays and composes music, starts a business, invents. There is a confusion between knowing about something, passing exams, learning techniques, and the actual doing of it. It is the all-important difference between learning about English literature and writing a novel, qualifying in a study of art history and producing a work of art. Through direct experience we plunge in, make a start. Means and technical perfection are seen as less important than involvement. We don't want to read the rules to the game, we want to play - learn by our mistakes. Learning becomes a personal discovery.

Success in direct experience inspires confidence that learning is possible in other areas. The formidable symbols of knowledge are less frightening. Those of us who failed education's demand for logic have found access to these repetitive mechanics through the hands-on use of, for example, a computer.

Yet, paradoxically, it is not merely symbols but knowledge itself that can be a barrier to learning, to creativity. With the enthusiasm generally accorded knowledge we tend to overlook its less generous aspect. History provides many examples of the convictions of a single person in bitter conflict against the vast authority of knowledge and its lobbyists. It's heartening to know that a single person with an idea can cause such commotion. When we become too reliant on the safety of knowing and the efficiency of planning, we find that instead of using knowledge as a tool it is using us.

Knowledge can be a dictatorial master. It can encourage us to build walls that shut out the unexpected - creativity - and its threat of change. The walls of the known that we build become a prison that resists inspiration, and faith in the unknown. Yet the human spirit is restless under any domination, particularly one so obviously self-created.

Feelings of awe, inspiration, imagination, compel us to leave the safety of knowledge, challenge its authority, to breach its wall and step through into the unpredictable, the dangerous creative unknown. This is a prelude to true learning. It may become a creative leap. Its impulse comes from a source more wonderful than knowing, the source of knowledge itself - it is the unknown. We have no choice in its use of us. It is an act of faith.

My wife and I stood together in the chill September night outside the island church. Maine granite beneath our feet sank its foundations fathoms deep beneath the surface of change. Soaring upward, our minds expanded, mingling with the celestial majesty of the star-encrusted canopy. Feeling and knowing were one.

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